To understand the election of moderate pragmatists like Bruce Harrell, Sara Nelson and Ann Davison, consider the human misery of the perennial encampment at Bitter Lake.
Neighbors have been trying for more than a year to get someone to listen to their concerns about the safety and well-being of the people living there, and for the surrounding neighborhood and students of nearby Broadview-Thomson K-8 school. Their pleas for help from city and school leaders got them nowhere.
In other words, the residents’ concerns were largely ignored, dismissed or mischaracterized, as have their neighbors’ complaints from across Seattle, who also have demanded a coherent response from elected leaders.
Residents of this typical working-class neighborhood have made hundreds of calls to police and officials about fights, assaults, overdoses, apparent drug deals and prostitution — all taking place just downhill from the school. Yet they also have helped people from the encampment who needed medical attention. They’ve pitched in to help with donations, like food or money to help their unhoused neighbors.
But their elected leaders have been too tangled up in ideology to take a clear-eyed look at what’s really happening here. On the ground, the debate about sweeping or not sweeping encampments sounds like nonsense. These neighbors, like other Seattleites trying to make sense of this humanitarian crisis, don’t need lectures about the complexities of homelessness and public safety. They are forced to navigate those complexities daily. It’s offensive to try to paint them as self-interested NIMBYs who just want to palm off the problem on someone else. They asked for solutions and got nothing.
I checked in again on a rainy day late last month, as parents were gathering in the school courtyard to pick up their children, past the colorful tarps hung along the chain-link fence in a vain attempt to separate the school and the camp. For a few minutes, a security guard unlocked the gate to let us pass between the park and the school playground, before locking it up again.
I met up with a dad whose kids’ usual route to school has been behind a locked gate since the start of the school year. The encampment had been quiet when I stopped by to talk with those few people who had ventured out into the weather, but it isn’t always so. The dad showed me videos on his phone: A man sitting on the curb, shooting up at 6:30 in the morning of the first day of class. Rats swarming a pile of garbage, and a man rummaging through that same pile. Another man exposing himself in the middle of the street just before a child rides past on a bike. There is nothing bougie about saying that many of the folks at the encampment need more than housing; they need help.
I thought back to what a school district spokesman told me last summer when I asked him about security incidents at the encampment. Silly me, I thought he’d be apologetic. Instead, he said: “We have 104 schools and on any given day a student could see any given thing happening outside their school.”
But all this? Every day? When I read his quote back, to be sure I’d heard him correctly, he said curtly: “I know what I said.”
The district’s apathetic response, starting at the top with the school board, is what finally drove about two dozen parents and neighbors to file on Oct. 1 an intent to sue the school district if it didn’t stop supporting the encampment and restore safe access to the school. Their attorney Jonathan Stevens called the ongoing incidents “a parade of horrors” that have prompted school lockdowns and led to canceled outdoor activities: thefts and assaults, deaths and overdoses, harassment, indecent exposure. People fighting, screaming, crying out for help.
“Those are not teachable moments for elementary-aged school children,” Stevens told me. “Those are horrible moments. And that’s the exposure, every day.”
But when I asked the dad, who asked that we not publish his name, if anyone had gotten hurt, he gave me a disgusted look, as if I hadn’t been listening.
“They are our neighbors,” he said gesturing toward the cluster of tents slumping in the rain. “And they are getting hurt every day.”
He and others I’ve talked to are desperate for effective, compassionate and just solutions to this crisis. They also understand that good intentions and highflying rhetoric will neither keep their city safe nor get unhoused people the shelter and assistance they need.
The school district recently advised parents that it hopes to move the camp residents to safer living situations and close the encampment by mid-December. City and school staff have been working behind the scenes to get it done. What happens next is key. Harrell and Nelson campaigned on promises to bring unsheltered people inside and restore public use of public spaces. And Davison vowed to better balance the needs of Seattle’s most vulnerable while protecting public safety. Sitting politicians should take note — this is what Seattle voters are demanding.